State of the Student Vote: Fall 2022
The movement for 100% student voting maintained and deepened its network in the 2022 midterms. Our choices now will determine what happens going forward.
The choices we make after elections also matter.
Our choices after elections determine whether the movement for 100% student voting retains amazing local leaders or whether those leaders move on to other pursuits. Our choices right now will determine whether we learn from new innovations or let promising ideas fade from memory. Our choices after the 2022 elections will determine whether movement relationships with devoted allies are strengthened or stagnate.
The purpose of the fall 2022 State of the Student Vote report is to empower everyone connected to this movement with the knowledge they need to make better choices in this moment. How will coalition partners engage with local campus leaders in ways that retain them for 2024? How will scholars decide what to study - and how to make meaning of 2022 results - in ways that enable learning and growth across the movement for 100% student voting? Will the media make the choices and resourcefulness of local leaders invisible while obsessing about the actions of donors and national political organizations? The good news is that we all get to decide what happens next!
That’s why the theme of the Fall 2022 State of the Student Vote Report is STAY FOCUSED. We launched the Student Vote Research Network earlier this year to drive sustained inquiry into the three most important questions facing the movement for 100% student voting.
How do we strengthen grassroots leadership committed to 100% student voter participation at every college and university?
How do we identify the most impactful tactics for mobilizing student voters?
How does everyone else, especially local election officials, help grassroots campus leaders succeed in moving towards full student voter participation?
These are the questions that matter the most to the local leaders we serve in campus communities across the country. So we are asking you to make the choice to pay attention to these questions (even if there is an extra pithy new tweet about a shiny poll grabbing for your eyeballs)! Real change - the kind that sticks and lasts and can transform our democracy - starts with our own choices to pay attention to the things that really matter in the midst of endless distractions.
Read on to learn what we know so far about the most important questions facing the movement for 100% student voting coming out of the 2022 election.
The movement for 100% student voting maintained and deepened its grassroots network from 2020.
6.7 million students - approximately 1/3 of all students - attend a college or university that submitted a plan to ALL IN for moving towards full student political participation. These students attend 528 institutions, exceeding the 526 institutions that submitted plans ahead of the 2020 election. But thanks to changes in the composition of those schools, it represents an increase of 300,000 students above the 6.4 million attending a campus with a democratic engagement action plan in 2020. The retention rate is stable across institution types - a result of significant investments in equitable programming across the movement, and made all the more impressive by the fact the retention was achieved during a midterm election cycle when participation and engagement is typically significantly lower than a presidential election cycle.
Our movement was able to retain nearly of 80% of the campuses that developed democratic engagement action plans in 2020 and we added 112 campuses that submitted for the first time. In addition to these new campuses, we were also able to bring back 21 campuses that had submitted action plans in 2016 or 2018 but hadn’t in 2020.
As we reported in the Summer 2022 State of the Student Vote Report, there is also substantial evidence that action plan quality and depth increased from 2020. The Strengthening American Democracy Action Planning Guide (SADG) and accompanying Rubric are key resources to support campuses in developing nonpartisan democratic engagement action plans. These resources also create a shared set of action planning standards used by numerous nonprofit organizations to support campuses to develop action plans. The SADG and Rubric have nine sections. Each section has a maximum value of four points. The scoring range for an action plan is between 9 and 36 points.
The ALL IN staff and external reviewers, including Voter Friendly Campus staff from the Campus Vote Project and NASPA, are trained to use the Rubric to score action plans and determine if a campus used the SADG. Each action plan is scored by 2-3 individuals and action plan scores are averaged. During each election cycle, ALL IN has three action plan submission opportunities to provide structure, support, and feedback for campuses to develop and improve their nonpartisan democratic engagement action plan ahead of the election.
Of the plans that were received before the May 31st action planning deadline, the average action plan score was more than 2 points higher than it was in 2020. For our Winter 2023 State of the Student Vote Report, we will share more on plan quality across all plans that were received.
There are several important choices for us as a movement going forward with regard to growth and expansion:
Will we choose to build the capacity for both retention and expansion in 2024? Presidential elections are a major moment when new campuses get involved in student voting for the first time. That meant that for this midterm we had an enormous amount of work to do just retaining the leaders that came through the door in 2020. In 2024, we have an opportunity as a movement to expand our reach to more than half of all college students, but in order to do that we’ll have to again retain the 500+ campuses that participated in 2022 while also launching a dramatic recruitment and expansion effort. Setting up the capacity to do that requires that we start thinking creatively now as a movement about how to best finance, staff, and operationalize that kind of growth.
Will we choose to learn from the 100+ campuses we lost from 2020 to 2022? The 80% retention rate of campuses from 2020 to 2022 is an extraordinary movement accomplishment. But there is so much we can learn from the campuses that didn’t submit action plans about where folks are falling off the path to 100% student voting. How do we support campuses through leadership transitions or staff transitions or budget cuts and shifting political environments? While it may not give us tons of warm and fuzzy feelings, if we can find that emotional strength to dig into this issue we can learn a lot more about what it will take to build up the kind of resilience our movement will need to succeed.
Will we choose to capitalize on the growing number of campuses on the cusp of backing up rhetorical commitments to 100% student voting with action plans? There is a strong pool of campuses that are the most likely candidates for the kind of dramatic movement expansion described above. There are nearly 400 colleges and universities - including a significant number whose presidents personally signed a commitment to 100% student voting - who have indicated that they want to be a part of the movement for 100% student voting but did not create an action plan in 2022. Working intensively with these campuses to get them started in the work of backing up their commitments with action should be a top priority for all of us in 2023.
We will share a more in-depth analysis of the choices we face around the depth and the strategic capacity of grassroots coalitions committed to full student voter participation in the Winter 2023 State of the Student Vote Report (which will come out after we have action plan scores for all campuses).
Compelling tactical innovation is happening. But a disconnect with academia limits what we can learn.
The student vote movement has invested heavily in tactical innovation over the last three years through the Ask Every Student design community. 232 of the 528 campuses that created action plans went above and beyond the normal action planning process to co-create new tactics and adapt proven tactics to new contexts through Ask Every Student. Sixty-two of these campuses received implementation grants (average size $4,543) to try out new ideas and evaluate them.
In a recent State of the Student Vote post “The Best Strategies No One In Studying,” Clarissa Unger laid out several of the most compelling strategies emerging from this community. These strategies include institutionalizing voter registration at new student orientation, using campus-owned student lists for outreach in nonpartisan and FERPA-compliant ways, accessing federal work-study funds for voter education efforts, and integrating voter engagement into learning management systems. We are still waiting to receive post-election reports from AES campuses and will provide a more complete picture of the reach of these strategies and what grassroots leaders are learning from them in the Winter 2023 State of the Student Vote Report.
What we do know already, however, is that our ability to collectively learn from these efforts is limited by a disconnect with dominant political science methods. Standard academic practice requires practitioners to try and replicate similar tactics in different contexts while holding out control groups that don’t receive a particular “treatment” in order to achieve externally valid theoretical insights.
This evaluation strategy is not a great fit for many parts of the programs local leaders in the Ask Every Student design community are developing. The Ask Every Student strategy is predicated on local leaders taking ownership of and adapting strategies to their specific local context. Indeed, the entire point of working with campus co-designers is to engage their expertise in their local context! But this means that the “treatments” vary a lot from campus to campus even within a single category such as “institutionalization into new student orientation.” And while there are many great opportunities to use randomized evaluations within mixed methods approaches with the AES community, many of the most promising AES strategies intervene at the institutional level. It is logistically impossible to effectively exclude a control group from these strategies.
Fortunately, randomized evaluations are not the only way to learn the truth (or even the only quantitative method available!), especially in 2022 when the academe has increasingly sophisticated techniques for analyzing text at scale. That’s why the Student Vote Research Network is so excited to be funding five research projects from scholars across the country that use a variety of methods to better understand the student vote. We also are excited about a new research partnership with Hahrie Han and the P3 lab at the SNF Agora Institute to use natural language processing to analyze over 1,500 action plans that have been submitted to ALL IN since 2016. We hope this analysis will help us to see where different elements of strategic capacity are present in local campus vote coalitions and how those elements are connected to voter participation outcomes.
These types of studies, as well as the mixed methods approach that Melissa R. Michelson used to assess the reach of the AES program in 2020, hold the promise of providing our movement with a much more complete understanding of the strategies and mechanisms that shift campus cultures towards full voter participation. But we can’t access this kind of holistic knowledge if academia and the philanthropic actors it influences remain solely focused on a single research method.
Given this disconnect between our movement and scholars, many different actors in the movement for 100% student voting face important choices in the coming months about how we will learn from our work in 2022.
Will we choose to learn from the 2022 data in whatever format we have it in? Hundreds of campuses will be sharing post-election reports about what they tried on their campuses and how it went. Taking the time to engage with these reports - even if they are not in the preferred academic format - is essential to generating new learning.
Will we choose to begin building new kinds of transformational research partnerships for future elections? Learning about the best tactics for mobilizing student voters is going to require a more robust kind of partnership between scholars and practitioners. We can choose to engage in more ongoing and mixed-methods partnerships that engage with community innovations on their own terms.
Will we choose to reward innovation in all formats? In order to build a movement-wide culture of innovation, we need to recognize and celebrate and reward it when it happens. Whether it’s with news coverage or funding or just a pat on the back, we can all choose to recognize those partners that really went above and beyond in developing creative ways to mobilize all student voters.
National higher education and civil society leaders stepped up for student voters like never before but the implementation of some policy wins disappointed.
Years of organizing in the movement for full student voter participation paid off this year as the US Department of Education and many leading higher education associations accepted and championed some institutional responsibility for achieving 100% student voter participation. The Department of Education released a Dear Colleague letter reminding colleges of their responsibility under the Higher Education Act to distribute voter registration forms. They engaged in extensive public promotion of this letter - like the video above from Secretary Miguel Cardona - that far exceeded any previous effort. Furthermore, the higher education advocacy community - and especially the “big six” presidential higher education associations - were supportive partners in this effort. The American Council on Education put out an extensive brief outlining permissible election activity and many other associations also proactively encouraged member institutions to promote student voting.
We also saw encouraging results from many efforts across the movement to build relationships with state and local election officials. Eight state election officials now host a "State Voting Challenge” for the colleges in their state. Anecdotally, we heard many great stories about new partnerships at the local level as well. But more research is needed to understand the full extent to which election administrators and local campus vote coordinators are able to effectively strategize together. This is an area where we hope scholars involved in the Election Science, Reform, and Administration community can engage in helping our movement understand the most effective strategies for cultivating effective partnerships between local campus voting coalitions and local election officials.
More challenging results emerged from Maryland and California where the 2022 election was the first election that both states had “action planning” requirements in state law that require campuses to develop student voting action plans. The effects of these laws have been smaller than we had hoped. In Maryland, 16 campuses submitted action plans in 2022, up from 10 in 2018 and 11 in 2020. In California, 39 campuses submitted action plans down from 41 in 2020 and 22 in 2018. While the laws are marginally helpful, there are many less resource-intensive ways to recruit an additional five campus action plans in Maryland! More research is needed to understand how these action planning requirements are impacting institutional policies and how to implement them in ways that reach their full potential. While state action planning requirements have clearly been helpful to partners in these two states, it’s clear from our experience in 2022 that these policies are only of limited impact without substantial investment in support of implementation.
In addition to what we saw with movement allies in government, we also saw significant bright spots emerge in civil society as many businesses got involved in championing efforts to mobilize student voters. Levi Strauss & Co. in particular set a new bar for corporations engaging with the movement by making a major commitment to specifically support programming at community colleges across the country. This is a promising area for growth, especially with regard to companies that specifically serve young people, students, or higher education institutions. More research is needed to understand the extent to which businesses are already engaging with efforts to mobilize students and when these efforts are particularly impactful.
Staying focused in distracted times
We are so inspired by all the amazing work that happened in the movement for full student voter participation this year! Retaining 80% of 2020 campuses is a monumental achievement. Launching a new research network that engages a wide range of research methods to better understand student voting holds huge promise. We are more effective than ever before at mobilizing election administrators and civil society to be true student vote movement allies.
And that means it’s more important than ever to STAY FOCUSED on the questions that really matter and not get sucked into punditry or posturing about election results. We can grow our network to reach more than half of college students in 2024 - but only if we choose to learn about the 100 campuses we lost from 2020 to 2022 and the 400 that said they would complete a plan this year and didn’t. We can make sure that these action plans are having an impact - but only if we choose to build the evaluation partnerships we need to understand their impact.
It’s easier to choose to stay focused when you have friends in the movement who you trust and who will hold you accountable. That’s why it’s so important to continue participating in movement spaces for learning and reflection after each election.
Don’t forget to join us today, Tuesday, November 15 from 4:00-5:00 PM ET for the first-ever SVRN Post-Election Research Debrief to hear about innovative efforts implemented this fall by many different types of student vote stakeholders, including scholars, practitioner experts, and local campus leaders.
2022 SVRN Post-Election Research Debrief
Tuesday, November 15, 4:00-5:00 PM ET
Link to Register
We also hope you’ll join us at the SLSV Coalition Post Election Gathering from 12/6 - 12/8 and at our 2nd Annual Student Vote Research Network Conference this spring as we continue to stay focused on answering the questions that will help our movement achieve 100% student voting.
Clarissa Unger is co-founder and Executive Director of the Students Learn Students Vote (SLSV) Coalition.
Sam Novey is a Consulting Community Scholar at the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement at the University of Maryland and a Visiting Fellow at the SNF Agora Institute.
Ryan Drysdale is the Director of Impact and State Networks for the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge at Civic Nation.